By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.– Saturday’s matchup between No. 2 Tennessee and No. 25 Auburn wasn’t for the faint of heart.
The physical battle between the two top-25 teams, which combined for 89 total points, featured two uninspired offenses as the Vols overcame their shooting struggles to edge out the Tigers in a 46-43 offensive blunder.
Tennessee (19-4, 8-2 SEC) was coming off one of its worst offensive performances of the year in the loss against Florida on Wednesday, where the Vols shot just 27.9% from the field. However, they somehow managed to top that performance against Auburn, shooting a measly 27.0% (17-63) from the field and a disturbingly low 9.5% (2-21) from three-point range. On top of that, Tennessee went just 10-17 (58.8%) from the free-throw line in a game where no shots were falling.
As for Auburn (17-6, 7-3 SEC), their day on offense wasn’t any better. The Tigers were held to just 23.6% (13-55) from the field and 11.1% (3-27) from deep. In fact, Auburn ended the first half making just one of its last 19 shots from the field, and was held without a made shot over the final 5:45 of the first half.
The 89 total points between the two squads tallied to be the least amount of points between two ranked SEC teams in the AP Poll Era, according to ESPN’s Stats and Info page.
No. 2 Tennessee escapes a defensive battle with No. 25 Auburn winning 46-43.
The 89 combined points are the 4th-fewest between ranked teams in the Shot-Clock Era (since 1985-86). It's also the lowest scoring game between ranked SEC teams in the AP Poll Era (since 1948-49). pic.twitter.com/GxB0500x30
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 4, 2023
Saturday’s matchup, despite how many chances Tennessee had to put the game away, came down to the final minutes. Thanks to a Santiago Vescovi four-point play conversion and a pair of key Zakai Zeigler free throws, the Vols were able to overcome the season’s worst whooting performance and notch their eighth SEC win of the season.
Even with all of the shooting woes, there was still one particularly bright spot for Tennessee: Josiah-Jordan James.
James, who missed nine games earlier in the year due to a preseason knee injury, tallied his first double-double of the season, scoring 15 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, both of which were game-highs. It seemed like anytime Tennessee needed to steal a possession or to make a shot to end a cold shooting streak, James was there to make a play, and to Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, that’s nothing new for his senior leader.
“That’s what he does,” said Barnes following the Vols’ win. “With his experience, we expect him to find a way to impact wins, which he does most of the time. I thought, throughout the whole game, his mid-range plays were huge…and it certainly kept us in the game.”
James’ 14 rebounds and timely shots proved to be critical in a game in which every possession mattered, which again, was no surprise to his teammates.
“He does everything,” said Vescovi. “I have confidence whenever he’s on the floor. He made a lot of shots and he did a great job tonight coming out with those boards…I think that was big for us in the game.”
Tennessee was able to work behind James’ double-double to overcome the lack of made shots. And while the Vols’ defensive efficiency still ranks second in the country according to KenPom, the past week’s offensive struggles have started to feel a bit more concerning. However, rather than being a skill or ability issue, it appears to be more of a need for consistency on the offensive side of the floor.
Tennessee has shown it can be a good offensive team. Just seven days ago, the Vols were able to score 82 points on 55% shooting against a really tough Texas defense. But until the Vols figure out these consistency issues in their offense, their hopes for a deep March run continue to get slimmer and slimmer.
The Vols will get a few days of rest before trying to rebound from Saturday’s struggle win when they’ll head to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt (11-12, 4-6 SEC). Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST and will broadcast on the SECNetwork.